When it comes to stages, it doesn't get much bigger than the national championship game. For the second year in a row, the stage wasn't too big for Deshaun Watson. Fortunately for Watson and his teammates, unlike last year, his performance tonight was good enough for a Clemson victory.
This game was a great display of Watson's physical and mental toughness. He took some vicious hits from the Alabama defense throughout the game but he kept getting right back up. He lost his rhythm for a few series in the first half but he never lost his confidence. He settled in and carved up the Tide secondary, especially in the fourth quarter. He showed tremendous poise and patience. He didn't try to force things that weren't there, instead taking the open option and steadily moving the sticks and leading his team down the field.
Compared to last year, Watson didn't have as many "wow" plays, but he was nearly flawless in his execution. I love this saying about quarterback play -- "You can't go broke taking a profit." He lived by those words tonight. His game-winning drive was a great example. He calmly drove Clemson right down the field before rolling out and tossing the game winner with 1 second remaining on the clock. It doesn't get better than that.
I've really struggled to grade Watson for the next level. He has had some issues with accuracy, decision making and turnovers. However, none of those issues showed up tonight. There's something to be said for guys that rise to the occasion and play their best in the most important games. He's always done just that, and he did it one more time tonight. We are several months away from the NFL draft, which Watson intends to enter, but this game won't soon be forgotten by NFL evaluators.
Here's a look at what else we learned during Monday night's national championship game:
- Clemson WR Mike Williams wasn't available to play in last year's title game (he missed all but the first game of the season due to a neck injury), but he had a major impact in this contest. He caught 8 passes for 94 yards and a score while also forcing two pass interference penalties from the Alabama secondary. Williams, who intends to enter the 2017 draft, is widely regarded as the best wide receiver in college football and he showed off his incredible ball skills and physicality tonight.
- TE Jordan Leggett stepped up and made some huge plays in the passing game for Clemson. He made a clutch twirling grab late in the fourth quarter and finished the game with 7 catches for 95 yards. The 2017 class is loaded at tight end, but I wouldn't be shocked if he snuck into the bottom of the second round.
- Clemson RB Wayne Gallman didn't post big numbers, but I was impressed with how physical he was when he ran against the top defense in college football. He did have one fumble, but overall, this will help his draft stock.
- Carlos Watkins had one of his best games of the season. The talented Clemson DT was very disruptive, knifing through gaps and creating several negative plays. He hasn't been consistent this season but he was outstanding when I watched him in the ACC title game and he stepped up again tonight.
- Alabama linebackers Ryan Anderson and Reuben Foster were the two best defensive players on the field tonight. Anderson was constantly harassing Watson in the passing game. He also ripped a fumble out of Gallman's hands and recovered it himself. He also recorded another fumble recovery earlier in the game. He lacks ideal measurables, but he's always found a way to make an impact in the important games throughout his college career. Foster was all over the field, delivering several explosive tackles. He drilled Watson twice and also made a number of plays all the way to the sideline. He is the best inside linebacker in the country and there is a significant gap between him and everyone else at the position.
- Alabama DL Jonathan Allen and OLB Tim Williams are both highly rated players, but neither guy had much of an impact in the game. Allen helped clean up a couple sacks after Watson scrambles, but he didn't generate the consistent pressure we're used to seeing from him. Williams struggled to get anything going on the edge of the 'Bama defense. He continually stalled out with his power rush and failed to bend the edge.
- Alabama TE O.J. Howard was the key offensive weapon in last year's title game and he came back with another strong effort tonight. He finished with 4 catches for 106 yards and a score. He was grossly underused for the second straight regular season, but he showed tonight what he's capable of doing when given the opportunity. He is a likely first-round pick this spring.
- Crimson Tide DT Dalvin Thomlinson and OT Cam Robinson both played well in the trenches for Alabama. Tomlinson consistently held the point of attack in the run game and his effort to chase plays was outstanding. Robinson was very feisty as a run blocker and held up fine in pass protection. He did have a couple false-start penalties early in the game.